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Medical Marijuana and Rheumatoid Arthritis

marijuana rheumatoid arthritis

The most common cause of disability in America is arthritis. Millions of Americans experience this disorder. As the baby boomer generation enters their golden years, the number of arthritis patients will continue to climb.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, and the common feature of each is joint pain and inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) presents itself differently than many other types of arthritis. It is an autoimmune disease, as opposed to a joint disorder, and it causes inflammation throughout all the body’s connective tissues.

As the number of sufferers continues to climb, patients are looking for relief. There is no cure, but if the condition is caught early, extended periods of remission are possible.

Medical marijuana has proven to be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Not only does it act as an effective pain reliever, but the medicinal properties associated with the herb may also be just what the doctor ordered. Read more to see if cannabis treatments could be the answer you seek.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Because arthritis is the most common disorder in the U.S., the costs associated with it are astronomical. One study indicates that arthritis patients incur more than $50 billion in medical bills and work loss every year.

rheumatoid arthritis cost


Rheumatoid arthritis does not follow the same rules as other types of arthritis. It’s not just a joint disorder — it’s an autoimmune disease. For reasons no one quite knows, the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking healthy body tissue.

Arthritis is commonly associated with the elderly, but RA affects more than just senior citizens. In fact, the average age of onset is from 30 to 60 years of age. There are even cases of children having early-onset RA.

As the immune system attacks the body’s joints, they become swollen and inflamed, leading to chronic pain. The most important joints in the body are commonly affected, including the:

  • Hands
  • Wrists
  • Elbows
  • Feet
  • Ankles
  • Knees

However, RA can affect more than just the joints. As this systemic disorder progresses, it can weaken other parts of the body, organs and systems, such as:

  • Bone and cartilage around the joint
  • Ligaments
  • Tendons
  • Eyes
  • Blood vessels
  • Lungs
  • Heart
  • Kidneys
  • Digestive tract
  • Nervous system

The progression of RA is typically slow. However, once damage occurs, it’s irreversible. That’s why early diagnosis and the initiation of treatment is so important.

No one test can confirm a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Usually, your physician or a rheumatologist, a doctor specializing in RA, will have to verify it using a combination of the following results:

  • Interview and physical examination
  • Lab tests and blood tests
  • Imaging, such as X-rays or an MRI

Rheumatoid Arthritis Statistics


rheumatoid arthritis stats


What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The immune system is the “bodyguard” of the human body. It protects us against assaults such as infections, foreign bodies and wounds. Inflammation is a common byproduct of the immune system in action.

In RA patients, something goes haywire. The immune system produces specialized cells and chemicals that get released into the bloodstream, misdirecting inflammation into the body’s joints.

The synovial membrane (synovium), a protective tissue which lines joints, thickens and becomes inflamed. Inflammation of the synovium is the hallmark of RA, and is called synovitis. If left untreated, the synovitis expands both inside and outside of the joint. This is what causes damage to other parts of the body.

Though doctors understand the workings of rheumatoid arthritis, no one really knows why it occurs. There are some factors that may contribute, including: 

  • Genetics:
    • The human leukocyte antigen gene complex has been shown to make people more vulnerable to developing RA.
    • The single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) is a gene variation that causes T-cells to correct joint abnormalities too quickly. The SNP gene often runs in families.
  • Environmental factors:
    • Secondhand smoke
    • Air pollution
    • Insecticides
    • Bacterial or viral issues
  • Gender: RA affects 70 percent more women than men.
  • Age: The disorder commonly affects those in middle age.
  • Family history: Those with a family history of RA are more at risk.

Symptoms and Side Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis have the potential to be more severe than other types of arthritis as the condition develops. Because of this, it’s important patients begin treating RA as close to onset as possible. If you believe you suffer from this disorder, listen to your body for clues. Early indicators may be hard to detect. These include:

  • Fatigue
  • Stiffness
  • Tender joints
  • Unintentional weight loss

Throughout the progression of the disorder, symptoms vary from person to person. Patients go from periods of increased symptoms — or flare-ups — to long spans of time where there are no apparent symptoms — or remission.

Interestingly, RA usually affects the body symmetrically. If there are complications on one side of the body, these often are mirrored on the other side.

Common symptoms of RA include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Redness
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Slight fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness

If left untreated, RA can lead to loss of function, severe deformities or even disability. Symptoms that could point to more serious complications include:

  • Erosion of joints
  • Bone loss or erosion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry eyes and mouth
  • Eye issues such as impaired vision, burning, itchiness or fluid discharge
  • Small lumps under the skin over bony areas, also known as rheumatoid nodules
  • Nerve damage causing numbness, tingling or burning
  • Anemia

The pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis can leave patients unable to function for extended periods of time. This could affect a person’s job, personal relationships and even psychological health. RA patients commonly suffer from mental illnesses such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of helplessness 

This condition is not fatal. However, it can lead to premature death because of the complications that arise, as well as treatment-related side effects.

Current Treatments Available and Their Side Effects

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but early diagnosis and treatment are crucial. If left unmanaged, permanent bone or cartilage damage can occur within the first year. Medical treatments and therapy allow patients to continue living happy lives. The goals of any course of RA treatments are:

  • Reduce or stop inflammation
  • Symptom management
  • Pain relief
  • Extended periods of remission
  • Improved quality of life
  • Preventative measures for joint, bone and cartilage damage
  • Prevent severe complications associated with RA

Many treatments and therapies exist for rheumatoid arthritis patients. The most popular include the following.

Medications

There are many medications used to treat RA. Depending on the progression of the disorder, doctors will prescribe what they feel suits you best. However, many of these drugs can cause serious side effects.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) ease swelling, but are not meant to be a long-term solution. Side effects can include damage to the liver or stomach, ringing in the ears, upset stomach and heart problems.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) interrupt attacks caused by the immune system, but can take up to six months to take effect. The main downside is a weakened immune system, which makes patients susceptible to infection. Another possible side effect is liver damage.
  • Steroidal medications are fast-acting anti-inflammatories which can only be used as short-term treatments. Side effects include changes in sleep or mood, leg swelling, weight gain, bruising and increased blood pressure.

Physical Therapy

An active lifestyle is just as important as medication for RA patients. Low-impact exercises like yoga and walking reduce inflammation. It’s also important that RA patients maintain a healthy weight, as being overweight increases risk factors.

Physical therapists work with patients to determine a workout regimen that keeps joints working and flexible. The only downside to this is that RA patients may still find physical activity extremely painful, leading to increased frustration.

Chiropractic Treatment

Those with pain caused by alignment issues may benefit from these treatments, which focus on manipulating affected joints to bring relief.

However, many health care professionals caution against chiropractics because manipulating joints could worsen the condition and increase pain, especially if joints are inflamed.

Surgery

Invasive surgery is only used to treat drastic issues and severe joint damage. Any deformities caused by RA are irreversible, but surgery can restore some abilities that may have been lost. It can also repair some parts of the joint. The most common RA operations include:

  • Joint replacement
  • Joint fusion
  • Tendon repair

Surgery always comes with its own sets of risks and potential side effects, which should be discussed with your physician.

Holistic Remedies

Some patients have shown improvement by using holistic remedies and therapies. These include:

  • Massages and spa visits
  • Acupuncture
  • Supplements like turmeric and Boswellia
  • Autoimmune diet

The downsides of these types of treatments are that they either only last a short amount of time before they need to be repeated, or they prove ineffective.

How Is Medical Marijuana an Effective Treatment?

It’s important for RA patients to manage their condition, so many are looking for safer and more affordable alternatives. Using medical marijuana for rheumatoid arthritis is an all-natural treatment that has been shown to improve some of the symptoms associated with the disorder. An added benefit is that it lacks many adverse side effects found in traditional RA medications.

all natural treatment


Those using cannabis for rheumatoid arthritis have seen excellent results, including:

  • Improved movement
  • Reduction of pain
  • Less need for other forms of medication

Research studies in this field show scientific evidence that medical marijuana is an effective therapy for arthritis and, more specifically, RA. Cannabis has proven pain-relieving properties. It can be used by itself or in combination with other painkillers, safely and effectively controlling the pain caused by RA.

One of the core symptoms of arthritis is inflammation. There is both research and anecdotal evidence that marijuana acts as an anti-inflammatory. This gives RA patients relief from inflamed joints.

The endocannabinoid system controls the general homeostasis of every person, and acts as a bridge between our body and our mind. Certain conditions, like arthritis, cause our endocannabinoid system to be out of whack. Compounds found in cannabis target cannabinoid receptors present in the synovium of joints, bringing targeted relief from painful symptoms.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms Treated by Medical Marijuana

As patients find relief from their RA symptoms because of medical marijuana, it becomes a more accepted mode of treatment. The following symptoms are showing great improvements because of cannabis.

Joint pain

The cannabinoid compounds tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) found in marijuana have proven medical properties. Among these is pain relief. Certain strains of marijuana can target pain and bring much-needed relief.

Best strains: Canna Tsu, Death Bubba, Girl Scout Cookies

Inflammation

Multiple cannabinoids in marijuana work to reduce inflammation. These include CBD and THC, as well as CBC, CBDa, CBG, CBN and THCa.

Best strains: Blue Dream, Granddaddy Purple, Gorilla Glue #4

cannaboid help


Fatigue

Because of chronic pain and the general malaise caused by RA, fatigue is a common symptom in many patients. The Indica strain of marijuana is known for its sleep-inducing properties. And a well-rested patient is far more likely to have a better chance of remission.

Best Strains: Skywalk, God’s Gift, Afghan Kush

Psychological Symptoms

If patients are in the midst of an RA flare-up, they may also suffer from feelings of anxiety and depression. The chronic nature of the disorder can cause patients to feel hopeless. Medical marijuana is shown to relieve both anxiety and depression and give patients an improved outlook on life.

Best Strains: Holy Grail Kush, Tahoe OG Kush, Jack Herer

Methods of Treatment Available

Because rheumatoid arthritis can lead to lung issues, smoking cannabis products is not recommended. However, there are many safer ingestion alternatives, including:

  • Tinctures & drops: Taken under the tongue, this mode of ingestion releases cannabis medication directly into the bloodstream.
  • Edibles: It sometimes takes longer for patients to feel the medication when they ingest marijuana edibles, but the effects tend to last longer. This allows for longer times of relief.
  • Vaporization: Vaping is one of the most popular modes of cannabis use because it has the fast-acting benefits of smoking, without the risks.
  • Topicals and transdermal patches: Cannabis creams and patches can be applied directly to the painful joints. The medication seeps into the skin right above the affected area.

How to Get Medical Marijuana Treatments

If you have rheumatoid arthritis and you need medical advice about cannabis treatments, let us connect you with hundreds of qualified marijuana doctors near you.

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This information is not provided by medical professionals and is intended only to complement, and not to replace or contradict, any health or medical advice or information provided by healthcare professionals. If you have any questions, please contact your doctor or other healthcare professional.

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